Liberian Rebels Capture Second Largest City

Rebels have captured Liberia's (search) second-largest city filled with refugees, depriving President Charles Taylor (search) of his last significant port outside the besieged capital.

Monday's quick victory at Buchanan (search), 50 miles southeast of the Monrovia (search), came as other insurgents pressed their 9-day-old siege of the capital, in fighting that has killed hundreds.

The rebels also hold the capital's port, and with it food and vital aid for the desperate city of more than 1.3 million and its surrounding refugee camps.

Taylor, a former warlord behind 14 years of nearly constant conflict in once-prosperous Liberia, is holed up in his seaside mansion in Monrovia.

As the insurgents pressed their advantage on the two fronts, deliberations on a peace mission for the West African nation showed no sign of progress on Monday.

Gen. Benjamin Yeaten, a leading government commander, confirmed that Buchanan fell to fighters from Liberia's second rebel group, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia, by nightfall.

Taylor's forces took off running as rebels advanced into Buchanan, said John Mensah, a resident reached by telephone there, who added the rebels were "now in complete control of Buchanan."

During the rebel takeover, the Buchanan office of the international humanitarian group Merlin was looted, according to Merlin office workers in the capital.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned rebels that they are likely to be barred from any future leadership role in the country because of their reckless attacks on civilians. He also said that those who cause suffering to the Liberian people will be held accountable for any war crimes.

The push on Monrovia was lead by Liberia's leading rebel movement, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy.

"Taylor must go," said Joe Wylie, spokesman for the leading rebel movement, saying only international "whining about civilian casualties" was stopping insurgents from a final push to topple the Liberian leader.

"He's getting weaker and weaker," Wylie said. "He should not face us in a final military showdown that will just take lives."

Rebel forces now hold more than 60 percent of Liberia, grinding down Taylor's forces in their three-year battle to oust him.

Rebel official Boi Bleaju Boi pledged insurgents would open the port of Buchanan up to peace forces, should they choose to land there.

Tens of thousands of refugees from the capital in recent days had flooded east into Buchanan, desperate to escape the shelling, grenade blasts and machine-gun fire of Monrovia.

On Monday, many took flight again, picking their way back along the coast toward Monrovia.

Liberian Defense Minister Daniel Chea had rushed overnight to the developing eastern front, which brings the smaller, but better-armed and better-disciplined second rebel movement into active battle against Taylor's already stretched-thin forces.

Chea told The Associated Press by telephone that rebels of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy had also taken the northern town of Gbarnga, Taylor's base during a ruinous 7-year civil war that Taylor launched in 1989.

Fighting in Liberia often sees back-and-forth battles for towns, with one side capturing a community, then retreating.

Monrovia's port reverberated with machine gun fire and grenade blasts Monday as government forces fought off two rebel pushes over bridges linking the port to downtown, Yeaten said.

Bombardments have killed hundreds of civilians since the latest rebel siege of the capital began July 19.

The rebel forces are allegedly backed by neighboring Guinea and Ivory Coast, who blame Taylor for cross-border attacks that threaten their own stability.

Reopening of hostilities on the second front came with military and diplomatic representatives of West African nations, the United Nations and the United States meeting in Accra, Ghana, for another day of talks on a peace force for Liberia.

West Africans have promised such a mission since soon after rebels launched their siege of the capital in early June.

The United States, which oversaw Liberia's 19th century founding by freed American slaves, has pledged support.

But it insists Liberia's neighbors and the United Nations must take the lead.

President Bush on Friday ordered troops to take up position off Liberia's Atlantic coast in readiness for any peace mission.

Disputes over funding have helped slow deployment, however, with debt-strapped Nigeria -- West Africa's military power -- asking for more financial assistance from the United States.

Nigerian Brig Gen. Festus Okwonkwo, who would oversee any Nigerian mission, called deployment this week "unlikely."